Not snowy white,
it's true – but
Christmas here is
often bitingly cold.
It was around New
Year during our first
that the garden
thermometer plunged to -11°C.
You can smell the wood fires as you
cycle around the village through the
ebbing year's grey gloom.
Family life exerts its gravitational
pull most strongly at Christmas, so
those without a ready apparatus of
cousins, grandchildren, uncles and
step-sisters are obliged to improvise.
We have friends from Martinique who
become our Christmas family:
Jean-Michel, Jacqui and the twins,
Brice and Fabio – the same age as our
eldest son, and indulgent friends to
our younger son, too. Christmas Eve
means a long and chaotic dinner
together of fishy extravagance. The
boat gets pushed out as far as it will
go (we had turbot with Meursault
one year) but my favourite course is
always the first: oysters.
These are a Christmas ritual in France:
as oyster farmers deplete their 'parks',
the wooden boxes of a double dozen,
decoratively draped with a little
seaweed, stack up in the supermarket
aisles. Hospital urgence doctors,
meanwhile, ready themselves for an
assortment of digital injuries inflicted
by stubby knives, ragged calcium
carbonate and the tense adductor
muscles of bivalves clinging to life.
Jean-Michel and I are not beyond risk.
Neither of us is a practiced écailler
(yes, the French have a name for
professional oyster-shuckers and
seafood dressers). The brine and shell
fragments, mingled with the sodden
tea-towels we use to grasp the
recalcitrant creatures, make a mess of
gritty white mud on the table top.
There's annual disagreement about the
juices: Jean-Michel pours away,
preferring the bared flesh in tender
isolation, whereas I struggle to keep
each mollusc brimful of its delicious
demi-brine: a marine liqueur seemingly
distilled from umami, wrack and wind.
We also disagree, mildly enough,
about origin: Jean-Michel is an
Atlanticist, convinced of the
superiority of Belons and Fines de
Claires. I have a soft spot for the
smaller, less voluptuous Bouzigues
oysters from the Bassin de Thau
nearby. Argument is joined each year,
each year inconclusively. In warmer
months, I'd always pick Picpoul de
Pinet as a wine partner – a salt-lemon
wine which grows, as if by symbiosis,
on the Thau foreshore. Jean-Michel
and Jacqui prefer the classic cut of
Chablis in winter. Of late, though, the
start to the meal has been fired with a
magnum of Bollinger: my payment for
judging an annual wine-list competition
in Australia. Having managed to hoard
three, we always drink the one with an
extra two years' bottle age.
Only ... it will all be different this year.
August was so hot and windless that
the Bassin de Thau suffered a kind of
heatstroke called malaïgue ('bad
water' in Occitan): white algae dye the
lagoon, which deoxygenates. Onethird
of the oyster crop and all of the
mussels were lost after eight days
during which the water never dropped
below 29°C: a disaster for local
growers and the 3,000 seafood jobs
the lagoon supports. In any case, work
has taken Jacqui, Jean-Michel and the
boys back to Martinique for a year or
two. Oysters and the Bollinger are on
hold while we head back to the
familiarity of turkey, sprouts and claret
– and family of the un-improvised kind.
'Good with oysters'
Passionate epicureans, the Beyer
family of Alsace believe their wine
goes so well with oysters that they
even named a cuvée especially
Riesling Les Ecaillers, Léon
You don't need to judge a wine
competition in Australia to get
your hands on a magnum of
Bollinger, their Special Cuvée
Brut NV is available online and if you're
a classic Chablis lover, look no
further than our Society's
Chablis with matching
oyster label. Finally, from vineyards
neighbouring the beleaguered
Bassin de Thau, The Society's
Picpoul de Pinet will go just as
well with our local oysters.
Andrew Jefford is an award-winning writer and broadcaster with a regular blog and column in Decanter magazine and contributing editor for the World of fine Wine magazine. Based in France, Andrew travels widely for his work and will be keeping us posted with updates from his life in the Languedoc and abroad in this regular The View from Here column.